Generations of country music fans have made the summertime trek to Detroit Lakes to see some of the industry’s top acts onstage in the heart of Minnesota lake country.
But there will be no We Fest in 2020 for the first time since the event — which often draws more than 100,000 fans to the northwestern Minnesota town of 8,600 — was first held in 1983.
Area residents say they’ll miss the big festival. But with plenty of other summertime events on tap, they’ll keep busy while preparing for We Fest’s promised return in 2021.
“Of course, not having it is going to be an adjustment for the community,” said Carrie Johnston, president of the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a little bit of a tug at the heartstrings; you’re talking since the 1980s.”
But Detroit Lakes is a tourist town, she added, and visitors won’t lack for things to do, even if they won’t include attending performances by artists such as Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley.
“We have events here every single weekend [during the summer],” Johnston said. “We do tourism well, so it won’t get boring here by any means.”
Shortly after this year’s We Fest ended in August, the event’s owners announced its sale for $10 million to Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promoter. On Monday, Live Nation said it would suspend the festival for a year, giving it time to better plan for the first We Fest under its ownership in 2021.
Live Nation representatives weren’t available for comment Tuesday. In a statement, the company said, “With 37 years under its belt, we know this festival is an important part of the Detroit Lakes community. And so, our goal is to continue to honor and build upon this special event.”
Since 2014, We Fest had been run by a Connecticut-based company, Townsquare Media. During Townsquare’s ownership, the festival had become less connected to the town, according to several Detroit Lakes residents.
“We Fest has definitely changed over the past four to five years,” said Dawn Olson, general manager of the Washington Square Mall. “Their mode of thinking was having the festival on its own, having the whole experience there.
“We used to have people come into Detroit Lakes to shop dine, buy liquor. The way they had it set up, it was not as easy to do that.”
Among the changes, Olson said, was a policy of charging people a separate parking fee each time they left the festival area and returned. That discouraged festivalgoers from coming into town from Soo Pass Ranch south of the city, where the festival is held.
“It has definitely affected the traffic the past three years in the shopping district, and the restaurants in the downtown area as well,” she said.
‘Sizzle out of the steak’
Longtime Minneapolis promoter Randy Levy ran We Fest for 30 years, after inexperienced promoter Jeff Krueger founded it. After buying the festival from Levy for $21.5 million, Townsquare staged it five times. Levy said Townsquare is primarily a radio company, though it does own three other country festivals, including Taste of Country in the Catskills area of New York and festivals in Montana and Colorado.
“They took the sizzle out of the steak,” Levy said of Townsquare’s festival management. “They ran a completely different show. They priced the show [tickets] differently. They approached sponsorships and promotions differently. That’s their choice. They sold it because it didn’t give them the return they hoped for.”
Levy attended the Saturday night of We Fest this year and said there were only 13,000 people there. In his years running the festival, there were typically 25,000 campers and as many as 50,000 attendees on the best days.
Live Nation’s decision to suspend the festival for a year is probably a good sign for the future, Levy said.
“It’s not a decision they’re taking lightly. They bought it and they want to regrow it,” he said. “They want to take the time and effort to staff it and do it their way and do it right.”
Levy noted that Live Nation controls some of the biggest touring acts in country music, including Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line.
What does that mean for We Fest?
“It will be the king of the mountain again,” he said.